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Trials, Trails and Tribulations!

It’s been two years which is far too long to be away from blogging about that which I love which is to challenge myself physically and mentally and to encourage others to set and accomplish goals regardless of how small or large they may be.

For me, that meant setting my own goals after taking a hiatus from serious running after being diagnosed with degenerative arthritis in both ankles. Not running long-distance again was a real possibility, and an option that I was not prepared to accept, or undertake willingly.

As a personal trainer, I knew that my age and arthritis, to some extent, could be fought within reasonable boundaries. For instance, I knew I had to train smarter — much smarter. Maybe, just maybe, I could enjoy my long distances of 15 miles or so again.

Five years earlier, during what I considered some of my best running years, I ran the Double-Dipsea Race on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County here in the Bay Area. This hellish trail race is an out and back course that starts in Stinson Beach and follows the Dipsea trail out to Mill Valley and back to Stinson Beach. It is hellish because the course has over 4,500 feet of climbing and descending over a distance of 13.7 miles. Aid stations are aptly named, “Insult” and “Cardiac.” More gentle sounding stations are the “Muir Woods station” and finally, the quaint sounding, “Old Mill station”. Then there are the infamous 631 Dipsea Stairs to greet you and take your breath away — literally. My training partner and I started to train on the actual trail. My return after five years was a rude awakening. It was like getting back with a lost lover and then wondering why you returned. Nevertheless, the rewards were plentyful: panoramic views spanning from Twin Peaks to Bolinas, the sighting of a rabbit scampering along the trail, sunbeams through the trees and hanging mists made every climb worthwhile despite the odd rolled ankle. While I enjoyed being back to regular and serious running again, each run was a lesson and reminder in what I was lacking and needed to work on.

My ankles felt weak. I needed stronger legs and ankles for injury prevention and agility drills. The agility drills would help me become more sure-footed on the more technical trails which would also help with injury prevention. I would be less likely to roll ankles and fall. I was not used to uneven ground much less technical single-track trails after running mainly on asphalt. My feet ankles, age and legs were all challenges that I was set to take on and correct. I was glad to be back with my long lost lover after all. Why did I leave…? I was happy to be back and had no intention of leaving again.

The Double-Dipsea race day came. The warm early morning sun at Stinson Beach, the camaraderie of fellow trail runners, and pent up excitement and even last minute lines for the restrooms were all things that I had missed from racing. I set off in my wave which was one before my training buddy’s wave. Waves were age-based and the race handicapped by giving the older age groups head-starts. This meant that it was anyone’s race regardless of age. I gave it my best, and so did my buddy. We felt pleased with our results. I finished in 3 hours 15 mins. Okay, so it was 8 minutes slower than my first Double-Dipsea five years ago, but I was five years older and I was just getting my game back again.

Training continued and life was good. I felt good, but it wasn’t enough. I had my eye for a couple of years on the North Face Endurance Challenge — a 50km Ultramarathon right in my stomping ground, the Marin Headlands. I suggested it to my buddy: Should we? Could we? We did. We signed up heavily committed and quickly built weekly logged miles from a meager 20 to 40 miles and within weeks, up to 50 plus miles a week well before the event. Things were going well: faster times, longer distances, and weight-loss egged us on even more. Big mistake! We were doing all the things that I warn others not to do. But I could handle it, or so I thought. Things went slowly downhill from such a rapid ascent in training.

Overuse injuries started to rear their ugly head. Achilles tendonitis, general burn out and a nagging groin issue forced us both to stop running. I was crushed. My dreams felt as shattered as my ankles and aching body after a long 5 hour weekend run. I needed and reluctantly had to take time off training. One day after an abandoned long-run, I posted a forlorn woe-is-me Facebook status update, but timing is everything.

Fortunately, my long-time colleague Matty promptly contacted me after he saw my misery in my status update. Matty invited me to a free session of Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) to try to get to the source of my issues (outside of borne stupidity) and get me back up and running. MAT was a shot in the dark, but I was willing to give it a go. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. After a thorough assessment, Matty was able to ascertain which muscles were not firing and which ones were compensating and thus leading to injury. Now I don’t believe in miracles, but I was back on my feet in no time. I was very glad I took advantage of Matty’s kind offer. MAT and Matty truly saved the day and season.

I was now able to proceed with caution after a few days of some simple exercises and very short runs that were pain-free. I backed off on high weekly mileage, and kept my midweek runs shorter with a major focus on the long runs on the weekend. My new strategy kept the injuries at bay. All remained quiet on the overuse injury front and the 50km Ultra was within my sights again. Sadly, my friend decided to stick to shorter distances and try again another year. I probably should have followed suit, but I wanted to accomplish this goal badly. I needed this goal as the training was helping me in so many other ways, especially psychologically. I was battling depression and had been for a couple of years. The long runs helped me focus, and I found the exhilarating times refreshing. The thought of accomplishing an Ultra-distance excited me. When my feet and legs were tired, I would take in the warm winter sun low in the winter sky casting long shadows and an orange glow across the horizon and I would visualize crossing the finish line… And indeed race day was on the horizon with just a few weeks away.

Race day finally arrived and the weather forecast was dreadful. Rain and gale force winds were expected. The organizers recommended that we watch their Facebook page and site for updates as there was a possibility that the race could be called off, or the course changed. I was getting nervous as I was reading the weather reports and impending warnings of the race being called off or changes to the course. In a moment of bravado, I typed in the comments of their Facebook post, “Wind, rain, mud, cold? Whatever. Bring it on!” I felt better… I’d worked hard for this showdown and the elements were not going to get in my way. This was California in December for goodness sake; not the North of England in December. I excitedly picked up my race pack from the North Face Store and left motivated by the words of encouragement by staff and fellow runners. Nervous energy is exhilarating.

The night before the race was long… The rain pelted down all night long with the wind howled as the rain beat against the window panes. I fought the negativity of my not quite so better half, Ken who exclaimed, “It’s pouring down out there! You don’t have to do this!” Nevertheless, he ensured we left early due to the foul weather and the fact it was still dark with poor visibility and potentially dangerous slick roads.

The Headlands were foggy coupled with near torrential rain that made driving a little scary on the hilly winding roads. The red break lights of other cars and headlights piercing the darkness were a comforting site: other idiots and dutiful spouses and partners were out and about ready to see their loved ones run off into the rain, in the dark, and along trails of mud where even the best of runners were to remain for hours to come. The flood-lighting near Fort Barry broke the remoteness and sudden activity reassured us we had arrived at the right place.

We were directed to the Rodeo Beach parking lot by gallant volunteers in all-weather gear. They reminded me of deep-sea fisherman out on a rough rain-beaten sea. We parked in the Rodeo Beach parking lot and waited in the car for the school buses that would pick up and deliver runners to the start-line at Fort Barry in the middle of a now muddy field. As the rain pounded the roof of the car, Ken turned to me again as if I was about to embark on a potentially huge life-changing mistake, “It’s not too late to throw this away. Don’t worry about the money!” I responded, that it wasn’t about the money. I’d worked six months for this and nothing, not even the foul weather was going to stop me. The school buses came and delivered us up to Fort Barry. I laughed as the driver bid us to, “Have a great day!” The track to the event site was already a muddy mush and like everybody else, my feet became wet immediately.

I checked in my drop bag and joined the others sheltering from the rain under a tent. We huddled like cows sheltering under a tree during a summer storm. It struck me as ironic how we crowded under a tent to avoid the rain knowing that we were going to be wet and muddy for the next 6-9 hours. My start time was 7:00am. I just wanted to start — get the show on the road.

My wave was called and we moved down to the start. During the excitement, I almost forget to start my Garmin. Damn! Would it find the satellites in time now? Never mind, there was microchip timing, but I would like the course data. I looked down and was pleased to see the familiar line of zeros. My watch was ready to start. I was surprised that I even had a debate with myself about whether I should leave my waterproof running jacket on or leave it at the bag check. What was I thinking? The rain continued to pour and before I knew it, we were off. I reminded myself of all my pre-race strategies… Stay slow! Keep an eye on the Garmin to check pace. 50 km is a long way.

The wind was strong, but not too cold, the rain fell, but felt refreshing. I would mentally get through this by breaking my journey down to just distances between aid stations. Good, I thought. I am preparing myself mentally for later on. Meanwhile, my sodden feet trudged through mud. My legs became quickly splattered and later caked with mud from thick swampy puddles that I’d long since tried to navigate. It eventually became fun plowing through streams of mud once I’d crossed the anxiety barrier of trying to navigate them. The worst obstacles were the slick downhills which at first I navigated carefully until a couple of younger men stormed by fearlessly down the hill… I left my gingerly stepping companions and threw caution to the wind. I just went for it and flew down the hillside. I was actually surprised how much traction there really was in mud. However, I was still determined that I did not want to fall and twist or worst break something on a stray rock. During the steeper downhill into Muir Beach, I kept to the bank where thick grass provided more traction. I saw and watched some of the fallen, but I was not going to get too smug. The party was not over yet.

I felt grateful for the stability and agility work that I’d worked on and mastered in the gym and trails over the last several months. However, what had become familiar trails had become a slick obstacle-course overnight that challenged my skills like they had never been challenged before. Aid stations were always a welcome site with hot soup, other food, enthusiastic volunteers and high-spirited runners despite them being wet and tired. The human spirit is a powerful thing. It is infectious and I attribute that to what kept me going.

The rain continued to fall throughout the morning. With about 6 miles to go, my hamstrings barked uphill and my quads barked downhill. Eventually, I saw the last aid station and check point that was sitting within a muddy slosh. I didn’t even stop there and just called out my race number grabbing some sports drink and some guilt-free peanut M&Ms as I very slowly ran by. Three miles to go and all downhill down the muddy river AKA Rodeo trail! Cheers came from me and my fellow “competitors” as we plowed down through the thick river of mud that was now flowing down Rodeo Trail. I had grown to like the mud. It gave way and was soft under my tired feet. The last mile was on asphalt back to Fort Barry.

I rounded the corner and made my way to the finishers’ shoot: The red LED display read, 6:32 — six hours and 32 minutes. I was elated. I was half-an-hour faster than my predicted sever hour finish time. I had never ran faster, and harder and longer over such a distance. I crossed the finish line. A lady handed me a medal: “North Face Challenge 50km December 1, 2012” I smiled. I took my aching legs and navigated the very last small hill to the beer tent, grabbed my beer and stood by the outdoor gas heaters with the other finishers huddled around. We laughed and exchanged stories while my body ached and pleaded with me to sit down despite the sodden ground.

North Face Endurance Challenge


The air was cool and it had stopped raining. I could feel the damp, but warm sweat beneath my rain-jacket. My feet ached. As much as I liked the beauty of life out in the Marin Headlands, I looked forward to being in my own shower and feeling the soothing hot soapy water cascading down my aching body. I looked forward to another beer. Most of all, I looked forward to a nap under the coziness of my duvet listening to the clanging of the radiator in the corner… The shower was wonderful, the beer good and the apartment warm. I crawled into bed and drifted only to relive it all over again, but this time I was in a warm, dry comfortable haze where things were effortless and nothing hurt.

Sources and links:

Marin Headlands GGNRA

Muscle Activate Facebook Page

North Face Endurance Challenge – San Francisco


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